An investigation has been launched into the suspended biometrics project that NEC Australia was doing for the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission.
The audit of the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission’s (ACIC) Biometric Identification Services project is likely to heap further pressure on the Digital Transformation Agency’s (DTA) oversight of IT projects and NEC Australia as a technology services provider.
The Australian National Audit Office launched an audit into the ACIC’s biometrics project on 2 June, a day after it was suspended – until Friday – pending further contract negotiations.
An NEC Australia spokesperson confirmed to InnovationAus.com that the company received a “request for information” from ANAO and is “currently complying with that request”.
The biometrics project was significantly delayed with costs almost doubling, leading the parties to “mutually agree” to put it on hold.
NEC Australia staff working on the project weren’t informed though until they had their access revoked and were escorted from the ACIC building in Canberra by security last week.
The ANAO will be investigating the procurement process in awarding the tender to NEC Australia, and the ACIC’s oversight of the project.
“The objective of this audit is to assess the effectiveness of the ACIC’s administration of the Biometric Identification Service project,” the ANAO said.
“Was the procurement process for the Biometric Identification Service project conducted in accordance with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules? Has the ACIC effectively managed the BIS project to achieve agreed outcomes?”
The ANAO will be taking public contributions as part of the investigation until September and is expected to report back by December.
The revelations come in the same week that Digital Transformation Minister Michael Keenan outlined the government’s digital plans, declaring he wants Australia to be “one of the top three digital governments in the world” by 2025.
Shadow justice minister Clare O’Neil and shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic issued a joint statement after the ACIC biometrics project was suspended, saying government cannot be trusted on digital issues.
“Within just a few days of boldly declaring its ambition to become a world leader in government digital transformation, it’s been revealed that yet another Turnbull government digital project has faced a major setback,” Ms O’Neil and Mr Husic said.
NEC Australia was awarded the $52 million tender in early 2016 to replace the ACIC’s National Automated Fingerprint Identification System with a “multi-modal biometric identification” service that incorporated fingerprints, footprints and facial recognition technology.
But the project quickly fell behind schedule and costs ballooned, with PwC called in late last year to review its progress.
The PwC report on the project found a “systemic pattern of delay” and that it posed a “high risk” for ACIC. The report found that costs had blown out to $94.6 million by November last year, and it would not meet the deadline of June this year.
The biometrics project was suspended at the start of this month, InnovationAus.com revealed, with further negotiations now taking place between NEC Australia and ACIC.
In an internal email sent to NEC Australia staff working on the project and obtained by InnovationAus.com, the company said it had “mutually agreed” to put the project on hold and apologised for how its staff were treated by security.
“It was the belief from ACIC that we would have advised NEC staff that work was being suspended on the project, which was clearly not the correct assumption. There was no intention to cause concern to NEC staff,” the email said.
The project’s issues have [put a cloud over the government’s other biometrics projects, with the DTA allocated more than $90 million in this year’s budget to further develop its Govpass digital identity service.
It’s understood the ACIC biometrics project is not directly related to Govpass or other government facial recognition services, and is used solely to identify suspected criminals using fingerprints, footprints and facial recognition.
The project, initially worth more than $50 million, falls under the DTA’s remit to report on all government IT projects worth more than $10 million. But it wasn’t listed as a project of concern by the DTA before it was suspended, despite being well over budget and behind schedule.
The DTA monitors all government IT projects worth more than $10 million, and lists ones requiring ongoing support as “engaged”. The Biometrics Identification Services project was not listed on the latest list, provided in May.
A DTA spokesperson confirmed the agency has consulted with ACIC on the project and has reported back to government.
“The ACIC’s Biometric Identification Services project falls within the scope of a significant ICT and digital investment project. As with all these projects we speak with the agencies responsible for delivery, in this case the ACIC, to understand how their project is tracking. We report back to government on this work,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.
The audit will add further scrutiny to NEC Australia, which was also involved with a failed $20 million government project that was scrapped last month.
Just last month, an NEC-built platform for the Department of Education was shuttered after it also ran over budget and behind schedule.